Have you ever regretted firing an employee?

Interview with Petra Hesser

Since the beginning of last year, a woman has been at the helm of the most famous import from Sweden: Petra Hesser, 48, is IKEA's Germany boss.

To person

Petra Hesser, born on November 5th, 1958 in Neckarsulm, Baden-Württemberg, initially trained as a commercial assistant at Hertie in Nuremberg for two years. She then studied business administration at the University of Applied Sciences in Mainz. At the age of 24 she started as a department head in the sales service of IKEA in Wallau and worked, among other things, as managing director of a branch and as head of HR at IKEA Germany. In 2002 she went to the Netherlands as managing director, before returning to Wallau four years later as managing director of IKEA Germany. Petra Hesser lives in a steady partnership and has no children.

What was your first piece of IKEA furniture and when did you buy it?
When I started studying in 1981, I bought an Ivar shelf at IKEA. I later gave it away to my brother. My Ivar shelf is no longer available, but IKEA still has the series on offer. The Ivar shelf is one of our classics.

After completing your studies, you joined IKEA in 1984 and worked your way up to becoming head of Germany. Is such a career even possible these days?
Of course, to stay with a company that long, various factors have to come together. It is important that the employee is constantly given new, challenging tasks and that they can develop professionally and personally as a result. The company must offer an appropriate training and development structure that enables such changes. When areas of interest shift, employees shouldn't be forced to stay on the track they once chose for the rest of their lives. Anyone who is open to new things should also look for a company that reflects this openness.

And IKEA is such a company?
I do think we can offer our employees exceptional career paths. I also stayed so long because I was constantly faced with new tasks and challenges, new locations or even a new country. About every three to five years I started something new over and over again. Another example: One of our employees worked in the logistics sector for many years. Later he worked as the head of a furniture store, after which he took on project tasks. Now he is responsible for all IKEA restaurants in Germany. He has proven that he has the interest, the necessary management skills and the will to learn. That's what we believe in, and that's why we rely more on motivating our employees than on straightforward résumés.

Have you ever regretted never working anywhere other than IKEA except for your apprenticeship?
I have not regretted it. But sometimes I think I should actually have seen how things go in other companies, what difficulties they have and how I would cope with them. But I don't think it's generally good or bad to stay with a company for many years. That depends on the tasks and the company as well as the demands that the employee places on himself and his work. If he wants to get to know as many companies as possible and repeatedly familiarize himself with new tasks, a change is certainly not bad. We also have employees in top positions who we have recruited externally and who are just as successful as people who have worked their way up in the company. With us there are both ways.

When did you make the decision to go on sale?
Quite early. I grew up in the country and the first time I consciously went shopping in the big city, I went up the escalator in a department store and found the place fascinating. I just thought: I have to work here! At the same time, the desire grew that I would one day be the head of a department store. After graduating, I would have had the opportunity to do economic analyzes in a bank. I saw myself sitting behind the files, without contact with people - that would have been unthinkable for me.

What is it that fascinates you so much about the retail industry?
The same as on the first day: the dynamism in retail, the encounters with people, customers and employees. In retail you can immediately see the success of your trading: if you have given the customer good advice, he'll buy something. There is just so much moving.

You were a manager in Holland for over three years and even learned Dutch. How did you benefit from it?
The fact that I was able to speak to the employees in their language opened a lot of doors for me. That is why I can advise everyone, before going to a foreign country for a long period of time, to learn the language, even if it is just the basics. During my stay abroad in the Netherlands, I saw many expatriates who communicated with their colleagues in English, which is not a problem in Holland. But you always remain a bit of an outsider. Even knowing the language is difficult enough to become part of society - without a common language it is even more difficult.

What other tips can you give for a stay abroad?
Show respect for the new culture! You are not allowed to bring your own cultural understanding into the country and try to implement it there. Instead, you should look at the people and their culture and learn how they deal with each other and with issues. By trying things out, you show openness and participate in life in the country. This not only benefits personal development, but also the relationship with colleagues and employees. One is quickly recognized as one of them, which makes a lot of things easier. In addition, one should ask oneself what values ​​the people in the foreign country have. In order to recognize this, you have to bring empathy and respond to the values. That doesn't mean that you should neglect your own values ​​and consider them unimportant. You just have to find a common basis for working together. I recommend everyone who wants to go abroad to find out about the cultural differences in the countries in seminars.

Is the difference between Germany and the Netherlands really that big?
Every country is different, even if it's just the neighboring country. An example: Christmas is not as important in the Netherlands as it is in Germany. Much more important for the Dutch is December 5th - which I had never heard of before. On December 5th, Sinterklaas comes and brings the presents. All shops close at 5 p.m. This was completely new to me and I had to adapt to it in my work.

The IKEA European Head North, Werner Weber, supported you on your professional path. How important is a mentor for a career?
Very important. I am lucky that I always had people around me who believed in me. They took steps with me and maybe took a risk every now and then - but it helped me learn. I remember an episode during my apprenticeship at Hertie. I was allowed to equip a 100 square meter area as a picture gallery on my own. In my euphoria, I only bought pictures that I liked myself. Now guess how much I sold? Very little! My head of department saw what was happening in the gallery, but he gave me my experience. We discussed the matter afterwards - and since then I have never bought products that only I think are good. Conclusion: You need people who are willing to stand up for you, who share the mistakes and who take the time to believe in you. Fortunately, I always had people like that by my side.

How do you find a good mentor?
The personal plays a big role, you have to be able to build a relationship with him. The relationship between mentor and mentee requires a lot of trust. The mentor must be able to send you on a path and be behind you in the process. If it goes wrong, he has to be ready and able to stand up for the mistake. He should know the processes and structures in a company and open doors for you. A coach can also be an alternative for personal development. At IKEA, we give our employees the opportunity, for example, to use coaches for change processes or when taking on a new department. Anyone who realizes that they have a need should simply take the initiative.

Is it right to work twelve hours or more every day? How do you endure such a workload in the long run?
Work is my life and I enjoy it. So I don't always look at the clock. Sometimes the days are long, sometimes I leave work earlier. Sure, I'll definitely get 50 to 60 hours a week, but I don't give twelve hours a day permanent output. In my opinion, nobody can do that. I also need phases in which I can think and gather new strength. Because managers who work a lot with people pass on a lot of their own strength and energy. Dealing with many different people and topics is a great challenge. As a balance, I have to be alone with myself every now and then, go for a walk, read, be at home, with friends, with my family - just recharge my batteries.

Have you ever had to lay off employees?
Yes, parting with employees - whether for operational or personal reasons - is one of the tasks of a manager.

And how do you deal with it personally?
It is always important to me that I have the opportunity to explain my decision to the employee in an understandable way. I take the time to make my reasons clear. Many will certainly find the decision hard and unfair at first, but I want them to understand it and be able to understand it. He should learn from it and see the change positively. I am still in contact with many of the employees who I had to fire at one point or another. They contact me regularly to tell me about their development steps.

Do you see yourself as a role model for women in management positions?
The difference to many other female executives: I have no children. I never had to manage that part in my life. I therefore have a great deal of respect for women who are able to reconcile family, children and work. So I cannot be a role model for these women. But maybe I can set a good example in another area: I've never pretended to be just because I'm a woman. As a woman, I have never wanted or had to bend. This authenticity is extremely important to me.

What requirements do women have to meet if they want to pursue a career like you?
In my opinion none other than men. You must have a good technical basis, bring management knowledge with you and love the topic of leadership and people.

The "you" is part of the corporate culture at IKEA. Do you also speak to your employees?
Of course.

What influence does this form of address have on the corporate culture?
The "you" has no influence on our interaction with one another, we no longer even consciously notice it. The understanding of leadership is much more important to us. I always deal with my employees. We determine our goals together, develop the measures, and constantly exchange ideas. I let my employees participate in all processes. But after everything has been discussed, someone simply has to make the decision, and that is usually the manager. However, this is done in agreement with the employees. And then we will continue on our way together.

To the company

IKEA was founded in 1943 by Ingvar Kamprad, who was only 17 at the time. The company name is composed of the initials of the name of the company founder as well as the parents' farm Elmtaryd and the village of Agunnaryd, which is closest to the farm. Today IKEA employs 104,000 people worldwide, including around 13,000 at 40 locations in Germany. Worldwide sales rose by 17 percent to 17.3 billion euros in the 2006 financial year, with Germany being the country with the highest sales with 2.95 billion euros.